I usually think of travel as getting in the car or boarding a plane and going away from home. Recently, I’ve found those journeys, however long, are never as far-reaching as the inward ones. This year, out of habit and to find new perspective, I traveled again to the Middle East for another two-month volunteer stint. There, working, I continued on another journey, the longest I’ve ever undertaken: an exploration of the inner country of grief, caused by the loss of our son to cancer.
Some months earlier, on a late morning during shiva, just a few days after Dov’s death, I lay in the grass in our backyard eye level with the splash of spring violets across our lawn. Among the flowers, little bees I’d never noticed before flitted from blossom to blossom. Watching them a question rose and circled round and round in my mind: “Where are you, Dov?”
Witnessing the bees with the gentle astonishment nature often elicits, I sensed Dov’s spirit linger, hesitant to let go of earth, and I thought he might answer. He hasn’t answered, at least not in any way I anticipated, but as time passes, I hear the answer almost everyday.
After shiva, I spent a year in study, reflection, and therapy, and I began to realize that the question, “Where are you, Dov?” was more important than the answer. In the struggle of those months, I had to accept that neither I, nor anyone else, can answer it; and, as time passed, I realized that “Where are you?” inevitably leads to “Where am I?” Dov, in the newfound wisdom he must now have wherever he is, would laugh aloud to know I was figuring things out.
It’s not up to me to know what I can’t know, although I continue to think about an afterlife; but it is up to me to know where I am. Where do I stand now? What am I doing with the grief, with the memories, with the longing for a son I won’t see again as long as I live?
How has Dov’s death changed me? If I look in the mirror of grief, what do I find of use to this life, besides a bereaved face? How do I continue carrying the sorrow, not trying to recapture my lost son, but living in a way that honors his life? How do I make memory a catalyst to action in this world.
Dov and I talked together and wondered together about the afterlife, particularly during long, wakeful nights in the hospital. From childhood on, and even more intensely during the progressively difficult years with cancer, Dov’s answer to the question ‘Where am I’? was without fail, an exuberant “HERE!” The same as when he was a boy.
To use the hackneyed phrase, he lived in the moment. If that led to a certain chaos of distraction, timing, and scheduling, to minor frustrations for those around him while he grasped the tail of each minute and ran with it, the annoyance was balanced by seeing such joy for life, which many long to have, but of which few are capable.
While many choose to sit and think about what’s next on the calendar, Dov was stopping to thank and chat with the janitors working in the hallway at the infusion room, or was telling a joke to the clerk at the front desk, or recognizing that the pamphlets a dismayed young woman was carrying signified it was her first day on the cancer ward and he could help alleviate her fear. He explored every encounter to find a laugh, a bit of fun, a meaning, a discovery of shared humanity. This habit of seeing riches dispersed in every minute stayed with him to his last breath. From his life-threatening, premature birth on, he used the seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years with a dizzying intensity.
I don’t mean to draw a Pollyannaish depiction of Dov, and he would not want me to. He spoke to me of the unease he felt when people made too much of him – even though paradoxically, he loved being the center of attention. He knew his intensity for the moment could be enticing and trying, that his great joy in life, his insistent expression of it, demanded time or effort others could not always and did not always want to give.
Simply, he stood in thrall to love of life, to his comedic gifts, which he spent his youth developing in repartee with his brothers and father, all of whom matched him for wit.
As he aged he continued to channel his delight at living through laughter and stories, sometimes, in his generosity of words, augmenting reality. I think his genius was in carrying the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood. It was his sweet remnants of narcissism joined to his readiness to take on the rough work of dying that made him the man he became in adversity.
With cancer close behind, shoving him in the back, Dov brought his gifts to fulfillment. If his laughter fluttered at the edges with anger, fear, fury, pain, that was okay. He realized in full, like his folklorist father taught him, humor can be a two-sided coin. We laugh about the things we take most seriously. For Dov, and for other cancer patients – no matter how graciously they skim over or belittle their suffering to put others at ease, behind the smiles and the self-effacements, and the I’m-doing-okays, the torments of the illness are there in spades, and the concern is how to deal with them.
More outrageous and edgy every year, Dov’s comedic gifts transformed from a private genius for his own joy-pain, his own afflictions and those of close friends and family, to a gift for a whole community of patients, medical staff, caregivers. Dying of cancer, Dov gave life the complete attention of his complex character, shed of any desire for recompense. He opened his Facebook page to encourage communication; he sent his fine poems to everyone and anyone, he told stories, and when he was able, entertained wherever he was asked. He approached strangers to learn their stories, to create a tie, to say “we’re in it together”. He made community where it hadn’t existed. If he offended people with his FUCK CANCER shirt, I like to think the offense lasted only as long as it took them to realize which of those two words was the most offensive.
It was this flagrant, brazen laughter, shared and developed first with his father and brothers and then with others, that led him to the ultimate wisdom of love. His was a tenacious, resilient behavior: love as a force, love that ran headlong with abandon, love enacted with the brave elan of one jumping from a high cliff into the river below, yelling with a hoot of joy for being alive. If his hoot of delight was barbed by the gravelly sound of grief knowing he was leaving life, it meant not that he was diminished but that he was a complete man. It’s easy to see this kind of strength in the movies; it’s another thing to live it.
Where are you, Dov? Sitting in my office, the question, and the agony, come again, and again, I break down. I won’t stop wondering or crying until I die — and then, just maybe, I’ll find out. I hope more than anything I get to see you again, my son, some place where you exist beyond pain and yearning.
Until then the question will gnaw at me, and I know that just after it comes to mind, I’ll catch a fleeting vision of your smile and an echo of your laugh, and I’ll remind myself that today, on this earth, I have to ask not Where are you, Dov? but Where am I?
* Paraphrase from Roman Payne